Literature can say one thing and mean another. Trope is the common term for the myriad ways in which literature might achieve meanings other than the literal ones, from metaphor and simile to allegory. In this part of the module we will look at ways of doing this that are frequent in many different genres.
More generally, tropes/imagery belong to the category known as analogy. Analogy is a cognitive process whereby information is transferred from one place to another. We use this process – which seems to be innate to most humans – to understand relationships and solve problems. Analogy is a term used by cognitive linguists (i.e., language scientists who study the functions of the brain), in the sciences of logic and deduction, in philosophy, law and much else besides. The terms trope and imagery (which are pretty much synonymous), belong to the arts, and to literature in particular.
Another word for trope is figure of speech or figure of thought, and such figures all have two things in common: 1) they are substitutions, where one word or phrase stands in for another, and 2) there is something image-like about them, as indicated by the words ‘figure’ and ‘imagery’. The latter point tells us that tropes in literature function largely by appealing to our senses, especially, but not limited to, the sense of vision.
There are almost as many tropes as there are literary scholars to discover them, and by some accounts metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony are the ‘master tropes’. By other accounts, metonymy, simile, and synecdoche are all subsets of metaphor, which is the sole master trope. And there are even more ways of categorising the various tropes, and even more tropes to categorise, should you wish to do so. For our purposes, however, we judge the following as sufficient:
Simile (substitution by way of comparison)
Metaphor (assertion of substitution without comparison)
Metonymy and synecdoche (substitution based on a relationship)
Irony (substitution via negation or contradiction)
Inevitably, this is bound to appear somewhat abstract at this stage, so we suggest you move on to read more about each form of trope in turn.